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Transport: Where do we go from here?

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The Geospatial Commission wants to better understand how access to location data can support commercial innovation in mobility services. I’ll, therefore, be chairing a new Transport Location Data Taskforce, which will bring together businesses interested in exploiting location data with key public sector organisations.

We’re all familiar with the use of location data in its most traditional form – maps – as a means of getting from one place to another. Whether that’s the paper maps which have been used by generations of walkers, or the satellite navigation systems embedded in most modern vehicles, location data is fundamental to mobility.

But the transport sector is changing, and the rate of change will accelerate over the next few years. 

What is the impetus behind these changes?

The changes are being driven in part by the importance of transport as an enabler of economic growth. Manufacturing depends on efficient supply chains, regional development depends on commuter services which meet local needs, online retailers depend on the timely delivery of goods and tourism depends on travel being a rewarding experience.  

Change is also being driven by an awareness that our approach to economic growth must protect the environment in which we live. For example, the UK government has committed to achieving ‘Net Zero’ by 2050. But the transport sector remains the single largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions with little improvement relative to other sectors*

So, I believe the priority for our transport sector, our economy, and our society, is ‘green growth’.  

And this priority must be delivered at a time when our future need for transport infrastructure is being shaped by two once-in-a-lifetime events – the Covid-19 pandemic, and our departure from the EU.

It’s widely accepted that Covid-19 will result in permanent change in the way we all behave. For example, I will go back to the office after lockdown, but not as often as I used to. When I do go back to the office, it will be to meet people, rather than sit at a desk. I will return to the high street, but a greater proportion of what I spend will be online. And whilst I am eagerly anticipating my next foreign holiday, I am also looking forward to a reduced need for business trips. Of course, different people will respond in different ways, and the cumulative effect of Covid-19 is uncertain, but it will certainly affect the type of transport infrastructure we need.

The opportunities presented by the UK exiting the EU and its impact may be less clear, but will also require some changes in transport infrastructure. New checks may be required at ports and borders, and it will be important that these are carried out efficiently.

Technology, data  and "Net Zero"

Fortunately, a variety of new technologies are in the pipeline. I am something of an optimist, in that whilst I recognise the challenges the UK faces, I do believe that the effective use of technology can help us to meet them.

One major area of development is, of course, electric vehicles – scooters, bikes, cars, buses. These reduce tailpipe emissions and are a key part of any strategy to achieve ‘Net Zero’. 

The same is likely to be true of hydrogen as a means for powering heavy goods vehicles, as well as trains operating on routes which have not been electrified.

More speculatively, drones may play a role in delivery networks, removing the need to send a van out to deliver a parcel to a single house, or enabling the rapid delivery of medical supplies.

 drone transportation cardboard box, 
Credit Image: Prostock-studio, Shutterstock

And all modes of transport will be better connected and smarter than they are now, thanks to the combination of 5G mobile networks and AI-based automation. 

I’ve spent much of my career in telecommunications, during which time dumb hard-wired telephones have been replaced by mobile smartphones, equipped with processors more powerful than the supercomputer that I used when studying for my astrophysics PhD. The result has been transformative for the communications sector, and the same will be true for transport.    

Dynamic optimisation of transport networks, making use of new and more environmentally friendly energy sources, can make a real difference to both our economy and our society.

But, as in other parts of the modern digital economy, the ability to achieve these goals will depend on access to new types of data. 

For example, planning where to put electric vehicle charge points requires an understanding of where demand will be high, and how the peak load on the electricity grid might be managed – electric vehicles don’t just consume electricity, they also provide a new means of storing it. Once the charge points are in place, if the driver of an electric vehicle knows where they are, and can make sure one is available when required, that will go a long way to addressing the issue of ‘range anxiety.’ And data can be used to increase the range of an electric vehicle - if it knows the gradient of the road ahead of it, it can optimise when it accelerates and when it brakes.

A drone delivering a parcel will need more than a traditional street-map to get to its destination. It will need to be told where it's allowed to fly, the buildings it needs to avoid, the wind speed it's likely to encounter, and the precise location of its destination - all in 3-dimensional space.

Various data is required to optimise the design, construction, and maintenance of new infrastructure – road, rail, ports, charging networks, hydrogen storage, distribution centres. 

And efficient use of this infrastructure can be ensured via various technology platforms, all of which require accurate data as to supply and demand - from ride-sharing, to smart ticketing systems, to dynamic pricing. 

New Transport Location Data Taskforce

The Geospatial Commission wants to better understand how access to location data can support commercial innovation in mobility services. I’ll, therefore, be chairing a new Transport Location Data Taskforce, which will bring together businesses interested in exploiting location data with key public sector organisations.

The Commission intends to look at six use cases – electric vehicles, connected and autonomous vehicles, road infrastructure, freight infrastructure, drones, and route optimisation.  

The questions the Taskforce will consider include: what type of data is required to support each of these use cases? Does the data already exist, in which case where does it sit? Are new datasets required, in which case how can we incentivise the necessary investment in them? How can that data be made available in a manner that meets the principle that data access is FAIR – findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable?

Most importantly, the Commission wants to understand what it is that the Government needs to do to make progress, and what it can leave to the market. The Commission does not want to get in the way of innovation; we do want to understand what we need to do to support it.

For more information, or to get involved, you can comment below or email us at

*Carbon dioxide emissions have decreased marginally from 125.4 MtCO2e in 1990 to 119.6 MtCO2e in 2019, with increases in vehicle fuel efficiency largely offset by increased road traffic. For comparison, the next largest sectoral contributor (energy) decreased from 242.1 MtCO2e to 90.1 MtCO2e over the same period. BEIS, 2020 2019 UK greenhouse gas emissions, provisional figures

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